Sunday, July 24, 2016

Slow Trauma by Bill Mallonee (A Review)

"Death usually comes dressed up in her finery and lace" -Bill Mallonee

                                                                                      --Written July 9, 2016
I awoke early this morning to a brilliant Arizona sunrise. As we lumbered on aboard the Sunset Limited, we trekked across New Mexico, across the Rio Grande, and into Texas.  As I am writing this, we’re somewhere in the middle of the big state, rocking and humming along the familiar path of ties and steel. There’s no better time to take a few minutes to review Slow Trauma, the latest by Bill Mallonee.

Bill’s last series of records has been solid; he’s found a home in New Mexico, and his songs have reflected the new season. DolorosaWinnowing, and Lands and Peoples all wrapped themselves in the desert whispers. Slow Trauma continues with the same musical feel for the most part, but it wades off into deeper lyrical waters.

Slow Trauma has to be near the top of Bill’s solo recordings. Let me briefly explain why I think so.
The albums starts with a whimper. He limps in with “One and the Same.” At a mere minute and seven seconds, this track left me scratching my head. What’s going on here? Bill’s last several projects have produced more six and seven minute songs than I can count. This was short and vulnerable. Before I could draw any conclusions, “Only Time Will Tell” kicks off, and I’m instantly tapping my foot along with it. This track, especially, could have been a part of the Audible Sigh sessions, possibly the Room Despair EP. It’s a great train song… it’s been in my head all along this route from Los Angeles. Next, “Waiting for the Stone (to be rolled away)” is full of beautiful imagery, figurative language, and a pervading confidence in the presence of doubt. "Hour Glass" captures the old, American western to a T. Mallonee sings, "Maybe one day every flag is gonna have to fly at half mast / Only so many grains of sand... in the hour glass." 

Ok. I’ll stop myself. I could go on this way about every single track, so I won’t. But here’s the thing: it’s not that it’s a collection of ten well-crafted songs; it’s more than that. There is no lull. There are no detours. Mallonee guides us through a trail of doubts and questions dressed in the jangle of a lap-steel guitar along with a simple, but well-orchestrated platform of alt-country Americana. He sprinkles his trademark phrases throughout. For instance, “Who knows if our heavy hearts could ever bear the load?” and “Lady Luck? She grabbed her keys and headed out the back,” much like Room Despair's "Goin' South." He also presents an honest confession of his doubts and struggles, which is the best any of us can do as we navigate this thing called life. Bill pleads,” Lord, gather me unto Thyself when my wayward heart grows still…I just wanna see over that last hill.”

Is Slow Trauma about death? Yes, it is. Is it depressing? Quite the contrary. Mallonee’s transparency creates a space for the listener to ask bigger questions…to seek answers to those unknown questions we face. And at the end of the ride, we may still have unanswered questions, but the process of self-examination proves valuable to the soul. Lord knows we all need more substantial art like this these days. Don’t miss out on this gem. 

Be sure to give the tracks a listen on Bandcamp. If you like what you hear, you'll also want to check out Bill's new Kickstarter for the next record.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Eric Peters' Far Side of the Sea (A Review)

Am I a man of few words? Not really. More like a man of short sentences.
I once summarized Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea in five words:
Old man. Fishing. No fish.

I can be brief.

And while I thought about using twitter for this review... The Far Side of the Sea--the new album by Eric Peters-- definitely deserves more than 140 characters.

When I was hosting the Twelve Minute Muse podcast a couple of years ago, Eric was kind enough to do an interview; you can hear that interview HERE. At that point he had started working on the concept and songs for this album. Fast forward to today...the digital version released to Kickstarter patrons just a couple of weeks ago, and the CDs began arriving in mailboxes this week.

So let's explore The Far Side of the Sea.
Throughout, the imagery takes us outdoors.
We start with lightning,
Then, we go to the shore. Next, the starry night, and then "the fields that are covered in dust ."
There are "Vapor trails [that] disappear in the sky," " the trampled earth,"
"Finding breath in the bone dry dirt," and "Under skies of old routine, when the earth brings no relief."

All along this nature so often prompts us... we are forced to come to grips with our smallness...our frailty. Do you know what I mean?
Have you ever stood on the shoreline and gazed at the vastness of the water...the tide both calming you and somehow terrifying you all at once?  In the same way, have you stood beneath the sway of a giant oak tree amidst the approach of a summer storm?  Again...did you simultaneously feel the sense of both comfort and terror?

As Peters' songs carry us through these scenes, he captures that sense of wonder and despair. The tracks flow seamlessly into each other until we reach number 6. "Beautiful One (Nowhere)" is the magnificent tree in the middle of the metaphorical forest we are walking through.We are forced to slow down, walk around it a few times, ponder its weightiness. As we move ahead from there, our step seems lighter. Our confidence strengthened somewhat. Maybe it's that feeling of the light at the end of the tunnel...that sense that we will make it out of the woods.

All the way through this journey, Peters voices a confessional with equal parts transparency...honesty...fragile humanity...despair...hopefulness...and trust...somehow looking beyond the present doubts and difficult circumstances to a promise of something better. He notes the "rusted things wearing worn-out crowns," but looks beyond to "a light that will guide me home."

Musically, I hear a palette of Peter Gabriel...Jackson Browne... and slight traces of Andrew Peterson and Steven Curtis Chapman. The music is atmospheric, providing a canvas for the brilliant, lyrical sketches of Eric Peters.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Why I Wrote a Children's Picture Book

First, let me make this clear: The concept and the words for Mr. Mosquito were mine, but the illustrations of the talented Ellen Howell brought the character to life. 

The Kindle version of Mr. Mosquito will be free Thursday and Friday, May 26-27. Here's a link to it.

I live in south Louisiana, so there are two things I understand: humidity and mosquitos.

At some point in late 2014 the muse struck. I was sitting at my desk, sipping on my first cup of coffee, pecking away at the laptop keyboard...and you guessed it-- a pesky mosquito buzzed me. Right away, I thought about the trivial fact that only female mosquitoes feed on humans, and that prompted me to consider the poor, misunderstood male mosquito. I started typing life from his perspective. Within minutes, the rough draft for the book was on the page.

I decided to send it to my friend Ellen to see if it inspired her enough to illustrate. She and I worked together via email to collaboratively work out details between the words and the images.

That's basically how the book came about. Another question, though, is "why?"

Why write a children's picture book?

1. We need books for children that are FUN. Brain researchers have found that our brains retain information when it is tied to emotion. If we smile or laugh while reading a book, the odds are greater that we'll remember what we've read.

2. A children's book is a very ACCESSIBLE way to teach scientific facts. While the premise of the book may seem trivial, it's still a biological fact.  I can't tell you the number of times people have told me that they did not know that only female mosquitoes "bite."  

3. SIMPLE truths told as stories can operate as ANALOGIES. As you read Mr. Mosquito, you will laugh at his tormented existence (using your best Inspector Clouseau accent, please), but you might also realize that there are people who suffer harm in one fashion or another due to the ignorance of others. When we understand the perspective of the male mosquito, it makes us want to ask the question before swatting next time..."is that Mr. Mosquito or Ms, Mosquito?" Unfortunately, male mosquitoes don't all wear black and white striped shirts. That would make it so much easier to tell the difference.

So if you're thinking about writing a children's book, I say "go for it!"  Do the illustrations yourself if you're able; if not, find someone who can capture the essence of your characters on canvas. You will grow from the experience, and you'll share something that will encourage or instruct someone in your audience. Don't let fear of rejection or the ideal of perfection stop you from getting started. 

Have you written a children's book or thought about writing one?
What are other reasons you think we need them?
Join the discussion by leaving a comment.

Monday, April 18, 2016

94 Toyota 4Runner Project (Part 1)

I drove a 4Runner in the early 1990's and was hooked. For 20-something years I wanted one. Finally, just over a year ago, I found one I could afford.

Thus, began the project...

When I bought it, it had an overheating issue. In fact, upon cranking it, water would pour out from the engine block.  Both the owner and I agreed that it needed a water pump, among other things.

It was almost a year before a well-respected mechanic-friend of mine had time to change the water pump and timing belt.  Easy enough, right?  Guess again.

After changing the water pump, the timing belt, and all of the other belts, water still poured forth from the water pump area.  Mr. J had to tear down the engine to discover than a 30mm freeze plug was rusted out in the front of the block (right behind where the water pump mounts). Once that remedied, the engine was reassembled. It now runs well, with no temperature issues.

Check back because there's plenty left to do before it's ready for the road.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Dealing With Frozen Shoulder:The 4 Worst Things

Last June, I noticed a pain in my left upper arm. I didn't think too much about it, but as weeks went by, the pain increased. The pain was tolerable, yet enough to be worrisome. Finally, in October, I gave in and scheduled an appointment with a shoulder specialist.  He diagnosed my condition as "Frozen Shoulder," also known as adhesive capsulitis.

I received an injection which helped for a few weeks, and went to physical therapy for awhile.  At some point, I decided to just endure it, since it is supposed to heal with time. I realize that many people live with much more pain than what I am experiencing with this.  Nonetheless, here's my list of the four worst things about Frozen Shoulder:

1) Changing shirts

I certainly took for granted changing shirts quickly and without pain, but with "Frozen Shoulder," the process has become a constant reminder of the pain and stiffness.
Unfortunately, button-up shirts are not any easier to deal with than pull-overs. It's the angle of the arm between the elbow and the shoulder that sends a shooting pain.

2) Sleeping

Discomfort while sleeping is what drove me to the orthopedist in the first place. At first I tried propping the affected arm on a pillow. Then, I tried changing sleeping positions from one side to the other, and even sleeping on my back. None of these attempts really helped. Every time the arm moved to a certain angle, it would send a pain that ranged from nagging to sharp. The most frustrating aspect of the pain associated with sleeping is when I would have a relatively painless night, and then either reach to turn off the alarm clock or try to push out of bed with the arm. As you can imagine, that is not a fun way to start a day.

3) Getting in a car with an umbrella during a rainstorm

In south Louisiana, we have our fair share of thunderstorms. With "Frozen Shoulder," I have learned to dread them. More specifically, a few of my most painful activities have been associated with an umbrella. For example, if you are struggling with "Frozen Shoulder," do not attempt to carry a box in one arm and an umbrella in the other during a blowing rain storm. Also, since my affected arm is the left arm, handling an umbrella (both in and out) in the car during a storm has been extremely painful. Unfortunately, I have not figured out a way around this.

4) Forgetting

The absolute worst part of struggling with "Frozen Shoulder" is when the pain subsides and I forget about the condition or when I simply react in a situation, using my arm.  There have been times that my son has thrown a ball to me, and I've made a jerking motion upward with the arm to catch it. What a mistake!  Also, it is not a good idea to use the arm to play with a feisty kitten that likes to bite. Any sudden jerks of the arm send the pain up the scale. So while it's nice to not be in pain for the moment, be careful: forgetting about it can set you up for the most pain you will likely experience with the condition.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Review of Bill Mallonee's WINNOWING

Bill Mallonee & The Darkling Planes: Winnowing

The life of a troubadour is often romanticized. Whether it’s a fascination with the mysterious Woody Guthrie or the freedom supposed in Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” most of us have fantasized about being the man with a song and a guitar, rambling through the world and leaving a trail of songs, like gold nuggets along the Rio Grande.  It sounds great for romance, but what about reality?

Bill Mallonee may be the closest thing we have to this romantic idea in the flesh. Writing and recording since the late 1980s, Bill has released close to sixty projects—most full-length, some EPs. Bill knows the blistering road, the intimate house concert, and the small change to show for it at the end of the night, yet he continues to put pen to paper and fingers to fret board as he shares his gift of song.

With no superstructure of support or financial safety net, he depends on his fan base to continue funding the projects. Earlier this year, Bill decided to try Kickstarter, the now famous crowd sourcing platform. Within days of posting his project, Kickstarter suffered a security breach, and Bill opted to pull the plug rather than jeopardize any of his fans’ financial safekeeping.  Call it a false start, or just another unlucky bump in the road; Bill dropped back to taking pre-orders through his site and Bandcamp.

Winnowing, Bill’s latest record, is now in post-production and scheduled to release in early September, 2014. I recently spoke with him about the new songs, and even scored a chance to give the tracks a listen.  Here’s what I found.  (You can hear my interview with Bill HERE.)
Bill told me that there’s something about the desert canyons and the big sky that beckon
contemplation and reflection.  The vastness of the night sky brings a perspective of smallness and the need to trace one’s steps.  This new batch of songs bears witness to this sentiment.
The opening three tracks (“Dover Beach”, “Those Locust Years” and “Old Beat Up Ford”) blend together in mellow, contemplative swirl, as if mesmerizing the listener like a desert sky. They pull us in with lines like “Now I am not a scoffer / withholding his thanks / my purse it is empty / my heart overflows its banks” in the opener.  The reflection continues in track 3: “sunlight sifting through the shadows / it seemed brighter way back then / and I walked the world in wonder / all dressed up in my new skin.”    

“Got Some Explaining to Do” breaks the opening spell with its noisy guitars a la Neil Young and reminiscent of The Power & the Glory (2011). Full of clever lines and social commentary, Bill admits an evil in the world, but refuses to answer for it; instead he writes, “no matter what the disguise is/ well, you gotta give the devil his due / but whoever he is / he’s got some explaining to do.”  

The next two tracks “Dew Drop Inn” and “Blame it on the Desert Whispering” could have easily found themselves on Bill’s album Dolorosa (2013). The stripped-down musical arrangement and the narrative focus of geography capture the sense of place that is unmistakably New Mexico. For instance, Bill sings on the former “The road winds hard and the road winds cruel / hearts being what they are / Let’s just say it will be ok / and I love you, just because.”  

“In the New Dark Ages” has the signature of one of Bill’s most ambitious albums, Locket Full of Moonlight (2002). With Beatles-esque organ and guitars, Mallonee explores the current state of expectations concerning relationships where “no one trusts anyone… [and] they forget to have fun.”  

The album was originally going to share its title with track 8 “Hall of Mirrors / Room Full of Woe,” and that doesn’t surprise me. This track is the musical epicenter of the album, with its layered guitars grabbing the spotlight.  And again, Mallonee delivers a tight metaphor with the following: “Now Death is a boxer / always stalking the ring / grabs all the prize money / and a few other things / with a 1-2 punch that’s been stealing the show.” The track’s haunting tone continues, but the lyric turns a hopeful corner with “what is lost is nothing compared to what gets found.”

“Now You Know” is like a letter to an old friend, with as many questions as statements. With its delicate instrumentation, the song sounds as if it could be performed on horseback, meandering through the canyon. And once again, Mallonee weaves an historical perspective into his craft with the following:  “Well Caesar sat upon a steed / and waited till the dawn / without a word the die is cast / across a Rubicon / history's muddy, bloody boots / are ever marching on / now you know.” This appears as a settled peace that no longer fights to answer questions about the ever-elusive fame and notoriety hiding around the next bend. Instead, the craftsman continues to apply his tools of melody and metaphor, with wit and passion.

“Tap Your Heart on the Shoulder,” like “Now You Know,” projects the feel of the troubadour, with the cadence of a slow ride near sunset. The lyrics, too, paint the picture of a horse-mounted observer, depicting this present age.  Mallonee writes, “Ain’t nothing left in Oklahoma / On your right or your left hand / We took God’s good, green earth / and we turned it into sand.”  

Overall, Winnowing comes in at 10 cohesive tracks (just over 43 minutes). It’s a journey full of questions, reflecting on the might-have-beens and the almost-but-not-quites of one of the most prolific songwriting careers that has been all but overlooked. From the haunting, opening track, Dover Beach, to the closing track, Mallonee delivers a fresh collection of tunes while he scrutinizes the cards he’s been dealt, sorting through both mistakes and misfortunes. Closing out the album, he sings “Only so many smiles you can fake…Hey reach over / tap your heart on the shoulder / and see if she’s still awake.” While we’re left with unanswered inquiries—some that may never be rejoined, we’re also left with these ten jewels of honest, though-provoking melodies that cause us to examine our own steps and motives, and in their stripped-down honesty, awaken our hearts from slumber.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Value of S3 Stat

If you own a blog or a website, there's a strong chance that you are at least curious about your traffic. Usually we try to avoid traffic, but cyber traffic is a different story.  Certainly there are people who blog for a small audience and have no ambition to grow the readership, and surely there are other writers who don't care anything about statistics and data. Most of us, however, who spend time creating and publishing work online are at the very least curious about the audience we are reaching.

When I started my podcast seven months ago, I faced a steep learning curve with just about every aspect of blogging and podcast technology.  I had to check out dozens of WordPress tutorials and learn how to use various software programs. After a couple of months of producing podcast episodes, I grew more curious about my audience.  Is anyone listening? What episodes are drawing the largest audience?

As it turned out, I had two means of monitoring my traffic, both provided by my web host. This was great!  Each month I reviewed the site visits and was encouraged by the upward trend.

But it didn't take long to realize there was a discrepancy.

My two reports were not telling me the same thing...not even close.  One, for example, was reporting 6,000 visits per month, while the other was reporting 1,200 per month.  The difference between the reports began to cause doubt and uncertainty.  It also tempted me to share either the higher or lower stat with whomever I was discussing web traffic.  This resulted in feeling like I was either not shooting straight with the other person (elevating my stats) or that I was selling myself short (using the lower count). Neither of these options was good.

And then I ran across S3 Stat.

Since I was already using Amazon S3 to host my podcast episodes, it made sense to give it a try...especially with their free trial.

What's been the result of using S3 Stat?
Great question!

No more guessing.  I can share my daily, weekly and/or monthly traffic results with confidence now. I can determine which episode is drawing the largest audience.  I can also get a global report, detailing where my audience is located.

S3 Stat has provided dependable reports that have allowed me to chart the growth of my podcast with confidence.